Founder of Chicago-based Specimen Products, Ian Schneller, and his team craft unexpected materials like dryer lint and recycled newsprint into sonically wonderful and highly sculptural horn speakers. These amazing sound vibrators are showing up on stage with indie music artists like Andrew Bird, table-side at the hangouts of Chicago's most serious foodies, and winning space inside modern art museums and the tech-geek offices of Instagram. We recently spoke with Schneller to get the inside scoop on how Specimen's speakers buck the electronic trends for miniaturization, high wattage output and planned obsolescence.
Not only are Specimen’s horn speakers visually intriguing with their flared newsprint protrusion, but they project larger-than-life sound using only 3 watts of power. The technology employed was common in old movie theaters when speakers were placed behind the movie screen to give bold, room filling sound with very little energy usage. Today, performers will use a handful of horn speakers to greatly reduce their energy usage as compared with PA systems typical of today’s clubs and concert venues — these easily use 5,000 watts.
With a background in art, Ian Schneller began Specimen Products in 1981. Combining a love of handmade art with the practicality of building and repairing instruments for his friends and members of his own band, the business grew to become a manufacturer of specialized music equipment.
Schneller says that at Specimen, “We are teaching the vanishing art of hand tool use.” Using manual tools instead of electric gives the craftsman a closer connection with the material. They can gain much more tactile feedback when cutting into a material, for example. As a result of this promotion of man power over machine power, the shop, which has a half dozen staff in addition to several interns and apprentices, has a very low electric bill.
The inspiration for the speaker’s horn came to Schneller from his love of geometric form — although it may call up images of phonographs for some. “Those that think gramaphone or Victorla — it is a double sword, since it is a coincidence.” To create the horn shape, sections of newsprint are cut from patterns. These patterns are each made following 3D mock ups of the horn’s interior shape. The material is steam bent, similar to the process for guitar making.
The newsprint pieces are joined together at the edges and moistened dryer lint is used to form the seams together. Schneller describes the lint as “structurally profound when impregnated and cosmetically a home run.” Lint is sent to him from all over the country, but he says that a little goes a long way in the making of the horns.
Those building the speakers are highly trained. Specimen teaches their own classes and seminars and also involved with co-op programs at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and other universities to where students receive college credit for participating in Specimen’s internship program.
The Specimen shop and school is located in the Humbolt Park neighborhood of Chicago. They love when music lovers, curiosity seekers, and sustainability gurus, like Inhabitat readers drop by, so they offer tours around the building any time during business hours.
Musical artist Andrew Bird has become synonymous with the Specimen horn speakers that he uses at all of his live performances. Ranging in size, some of the speakers he uses are over seven feet tall.
Specimen products are unique in the electronics world because they are designed to be serviceable and are intended to last for decades. Schneller is appalled that so many products seem to have planned obsolescence. He points out in particular that we should never see Specimen tube amplifiers in a landfill. Although we may not see them at the dump, we should see them in museums. This collection was displayed at Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago in 2011 in an exhibit call Sonic Arboretum.
The horn speakers’ ability to cast sound was truly put to the test when they were used during Andrew Bird’s performance at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City in 2010.
Specimen has just released a version of the their double horn speaker that is ceiling mounted. Schneller says they have been getting great feedback for this undoubtably unique speaker that spins to cast sound as it rotates around.